Years after Pavement became, however grudgingly, a cultural touchstone, Stephen Malkmus has made it clear that he's playing a lower-stakes game. For his first solo move in 2001, he printed up T-shirts reading "Who the fuck is Stephen Malkmus?"a question that settled on his sardonic winsomeness, but also seemed to fetishize a defeatist underdog status that was no longer his to claim. Since then, Malkmus has put out two strong (though spotty) albums that follow his whims first and grander designs second, if at all.
For the most part, that serves him well. The only self-conscious ambition that could be ascribed to Face The Truth is Malkmus' seeming desire to keep up with The Fiery Furnaces, whose weird musical leaps and six-songs-in-one approach he's championed for a long time anyway, though with fewer Moog synthesizers and carnival barks. Instead, Malkmus files through his many different guises and styles in easy-breezy form, from tender, heartening ballads to twisty digressions by what sounds like "the last psychedelic band" he bid adieu in Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain days. "Pencil Rot" starts off as the latter, lurching through thickets of fuzzy guitar and overdriven organ while Malkmus imagines himself as a character named "Leather McWhip" and decries "the human shit-pile."
The thorny tone carries through much of the album, but more emotionally nuanced songs like the gorgeous piano-tickler "Freeze The Saints" make it easier to divine what Malkmus means and how much he means it. It might be better if he would set his sights higher than scenesters flailing for "scraps of acceptance from coked-up quasi-urbane kids," as he does in "Post-Paint Boy," but Malkmus' slung arrows and hesitant poetry hit marks as varied as they are inveterate. In "Freeze The Saints," he urges antsy listeners to "learn to sing along and languish here." Malkmus has long made a game of languishing, but he now sounds refreshingly eager to turn off the scoreboard and let his songs coach themselves.